Souther on Love, 'Cleveland Architecture 1890–1930: Building the City Beautiful'

Author: 
Jeannine deNobel Love
Reviewer: 
J. Mark Souther

Jeannine deNobel Love. Cleveland Architecture 1890–1930: Building the City Beautiful. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2020. 336 pp. $58.56 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61186-349-9

Reviewed by J. Mark Souther (Cleveland State University) Published on H-Midwest (August, 2020) Commissioned by Dustin McLochlin (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55462

Jeannine deNobel Love’s Cleveland Architecture, 1890-1930 is a surprising and welcome addition to the roster of books on Cleveland’s architectural history. It joins and augments older workhorses such as Eric Johannesen’s Cleveland Architecture, 1876-1976 (1979), his monograph A Cleveland Legacy: The Architecture of Walker and Weeks (1999), and Robert Gaede and Kenneth Goldberg’s Guide to Cleveland Architecture (1997). No previous work brings together late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Cleveland building biographies and contextualizes them within the city’s broader history and the City Beautiful movement as Love does. The book is somewhat reminiscent of Daniel Bluestone’s Constructing Chicago (1991) in that it provides a similarly well-illustrated melding of urban history and architectural history.

Love’s book is divided into two sections, titled “Cleveland’s Architectural Journey from Outpost to Metropolis” and “Catalog of Buildings.” The first, approximately one-third of the primary text length, consists of two brief chapters that trace the city’s broader development in the century after 1830. The remainder includes short chapters on the influences of the École des Beaux-Arts, Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and City Beautiful movement on urban design and planning and a particularly well-developed chapter on Cleveland’s Group Plan and University Circle Cultural Center Plan. The second section comprises about two-thirds of the main text and provides a catalog of notable examples of commemorative commercial, civic and governmental, and cultural buildings. As the author explains, her emphasis here lies on those that combine “an explicit public purpose” and “some form of a decorative arts program” (p. xiii). 

Two initial chapters on the broad contours of Cleveland’s development in the century after the emergence of steamboats and canals essentially repackage and condense a well-documented historical narrative, drawing solely on secondary sources. The chapters on the influences of architectural study in Paris’s famed school, the Windy City’s pivotal exposition, and the emerging City Beautiful impulse break little new ground, although the author does a fine job of providing an engaging, balanced, concise view of the many strands that intertwined to shape the architectural and city planning work that defined the early twentieth century not only in Cleveland but in other cities. 

Of this trio of chapters that set the stage for understanding Cleveland’s City Beautiful plans in its downtown and University Circle districts, the one on the City Beautiful is the most impressive. Love provides a true service in digesting and interpreting the emergence of this somewhat nebulous movement, especially in attending to the influences of both men and women and to organizations with large and small concepts. Her treatment of the origins of the Chicago-based American Civic Association in a small Springfield, Ohio–based magazine, How to Grow Flowers, will surprise and interest readers who may not have been able to access Bonj Szcyzgiel’s scholarship, which she openly cites. 

The final chapter of the first section delivers a welcome analysis of the evolution of the Cleveland Group Plan and the University Circle Cultural Center Plan. She traces this evolution through the various iterations of the downtown plan by Charles Pratt Jr. (1900), Arnold Brunner (1902), and finally the adopted 1903 plan by Daniel Burnham, John Carrère, and Brunner. She also rightly exposes the slippage between intent and outcome. As she points out, “The area may remain a civic center but it has never become a civic space” (p. 61). One regret is that perhaps space did not permit a fuller reflection on how the City Beautiful plans were regarded and used in later years. She provides a very brief two-page commentary on this subject, but it would have been a valuable contribution and worthy use of precious space to offer even a little more. As it stands, she has provided an ample introduction to the developments that made the City Beautiful impulse both possible and attractive in Cleveland, including the legacy of industrial wealth that made the high cost of realizing the plans thinkable, but very little about the legacy of the plans themselves. 

The catalog is arguably the greatest asset of Love’s book. It features detailed accounts of twenty-one noteworthy buildings from the period 1890-1930, each illustrated with dozens of high-quality photos. Twenty-four exquisite color plates include a few interior art features that even longtime Clevelanders may never have seen. Another strength of the catalog is the care that the author takes to weave together illuminating biographies of artists and architects, explications of their interactions and intents, descriptions that highlight her expertise as an art historian, and speculations about aspects of these projects that have long animated debate. More than the first, this section also draws on a balanced combination of primary and secondary sources. 

The twenty-one building biographies, some of which are more substantial than some chapters in the book’s preceding section, double as biographical explorations of the architects as well as the muralists and sculptors who executed the decorative arts programs that graced their facades and interior spaces. It is especially useful that Love explores the relationships between various Cleveland leaders and architects and between architects and artists. As one example, she points to Jeptha H. Wade II’s enduring affinity for the firm of Hubbell and Benes. Although most of the buildings profiled are familiar to Clevelanders and their histories rather well known, she also includes several that seldom elicit similar attention. In particular, her inclusion of three demolished bank buildings on lower Euclid Avenue—Guardian Savings and Trust Company, First National Bank, and Union National Bank—makes this book a must for those interested in Cleveland architectural history. It is, for example, fascinating to read about Jules Guérin’s panoramic mural, The Commercial History of Cleveland, that may or may not have ever been executed in the banking lobby of the old Guardian building. 

Even for the buildings whose histories are generally well documented, Love has unearthed less-known details. One is that George B. Post’s Statler Hotel “became the first example of standardization in the field of hotel design” (p. 122). It is also unlikely that even most Cleveland readers will know that the Cleveland Trust Company, built as designed by George B. Post and Sons of New York Stock Exchange fame, was sketched earlier by John Carrère and Thomas Hastings before the bank directors selected Post instead. It is especially striking that Carrère included an attached skyscraper to the rear of the domed bank, a concept that would be echoed more than sixty years later with Marcel Breuer’s modernist tower in the same location. 

Here and there the careful reader will find omissions or errors. It is surprising that Love did not track down the demolition date for the Guardian Savings and Trust building. It was torn down in 1933 and replaced soon after by the much shorter, Art Deco–style Lerner Building, which remains today.[1] In addition, Love might have credited Karl Brunjes, who in 2016 debunked the longtime rumor that the Tiffany studios designed the Cleveland Trust interior glass dome by establishing that Italian immigrant Nicola D’Ascenzo designed it.[2] It is also surprising that the author ignored the 2013 opening of the city’s thorough rebuilding of the underground convention center expansion adjacent to Public Auditorium; she writes that “the city has been lobbying for new, larger, more modern convention facilities for some time, but to date no actual plans have emerged” (p. 205). For the most part, however, Love is on solid ground, especially in her area of expertise, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art history.

Although Cleveland may not match the architectural grandeur of City Beautiful–era buildings in the larger Midwestern cities of Chicago and Detroit, one comes away from Love’s catalog with a renewed appreciation for the quality of historic Cleveland architecture, sorrow for the treasures that have been lost, and gratitude for what remains. Love’s decision to offer a concise historical narrative followed by a lengthy catalog of extended encyclopedic essays on illustrative buildings leaves an abrupt ending, making the majority of the book more of a reference work than a monograph. With original insights, concise synthesis of recent scholarship, and photos curated from a surprising plethora of collections, it is, despite its substantial price, an essential addition to any library of works on Cleveland history, urban architectural history, and decorative and public art history.

Note 

[1]. “Euclid Avenue: The Spine of Downtown Cleveland,” Cleveland Walks, Center for Public History + Digital Humanities, Cleveland State University, https://clevelandwalks.net/euclid-avenue-the-spine-of-downtown-cleveland/. Research on Guardian Savings and Trust Company and Lerner Building by David Nicolai.

[2]. Steven Litt, “Mystery Solved: Researcher Finds Out Who Designed Cleveland Trust Stained Glass Dome,” Cleveland.com, November 10, 2016, https://www.cleveland.com/architecture/2016/11/mystery_solved_researcher_find.html.

Citation: J. Mark Souther. Review of Love, Jeannine deNobel, Cleveland Architecture 1890–1930: Building the City Beautiful. H-Midwest, H-Net Reviews. August, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55462

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